The Stanley Cup champion won't come from either Chicago or Los Angeles for the first time since 2011 after both were dispatched in the opening round of the NHL playoffs. The second round could see a regular-season juggernaut fall, with old playoff disappointments Pittsburgh, St. Louis and San Jose finally rising again.
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Pick: Penguins in six.
There's very little to dislike about the Penguins right now. After rolling over the New York Rangers in five games, outscoring them 21-10 with eight power-play goals, Pittsburgh has won 18 of its last 21 games dating back to the conclusion of the regular season.
Sidney Crosby (eight points) continues to surge after a dominant second half, buoyed by the play of youngsters like Connor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl, as well as the return of Evgeni Malkin (seven points) and the ongoing resurgence of Phil Kessel. Offering the Penguins a third-tier scoring threat, Kessel scored three goals and six points in five games against the Rangers and now has 16 goals and 27 points in 27 career playoff games.
Uncertain goaltending questions have also been answered with 21-year-old Matt Murray stonewalling the Rangers (.955 save percentage in three starts) in his return from injury.
Pittsburgh has been a force since Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston behind the bench, scoring and holding the puck in bunches. They also won the season series against Washington, holding Alex Ovechkin pointless in five games.
The Capitals got by the feisty Philadelphia Flyers and remain a deep and potent contender, but the Penguins look too good in every area right now and are poised to return to the conference finals for the first time since 2013.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Islanders
Pick: Lightning in six.
On the shoulders of John Tavares (five goals and nine points) and an unlikely performance in goal from Thomas Greiss (88 stops on 90 shots in Games 5 and 6), the Islanders knocked out their higher-seeded foes from Florida in close fashion, winning three games in overtime.
It would be unwise to expect a repeat performance against the Lightning.
Tampa is the deeper team here, even with Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman both sidelined, and boast arguably the best goalie in the world this season in Ben Bishop. Bishop had a .950 save percentage a five-game win over Detroit in the first round, including a 34-save shutout in the clincher.
The Lightning are also sporting one of the top-producing lines in the playoffs so far with Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson combining for 10 of the team's 12 goals against the Red Wings.
Jonathan Drouin, too, is emerging after a turbulent regular season.
Tavares will be difficult to contain in his current state, especially with Matt Carle struggling in place of Stralman on the Lightning top pair, but there's just too much skillful talent along with elite goaltending for the Lightning to stumble here.
Dallas Stars vs. St. Louis Blues
Pick: Blues in six.
The Blues are arguably the team to beat in the West now that they've dispatched the defending Stanley Cup champs. St. Louis just hung on to beat the Blackhawks in seven games, but they should have an easier, if still troublesome time, with the high-powered Stars.
Dallas scratched by Minnesota in six games, but remains troubled by highly questionable goaltending. Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen both struggled against the Wild (.897 save percentage). The Stars also seem unlikely to have Tyler Seguin, who briefly returned from an Achilles injury only to exit again with no certain return date.
Those goaltending questions as well the Blues' superiority defensively and on special teams, not to mention game-breaking young talents in Vladimir Tarasenko and Robby Fabbri, that make St. Louis a strong bet to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2001.
San Jose Sharks vs. Anaheim Ducks/Nashville Predators*
Pick: Sharks in six.
Like the Blues, the Sharks leaped a large hurdle in the first round, slaying playoff demons in topping the L.A. Kings in only five games. San Jose has been rolling for months now, buoyed by 36-year-old Joe Thornton's incredible ageless season, Joe Pavelski's Ovechkin-like scoring ways and the game-changing efforts of the eccentric Brent Burns from the back-end.
The Sharks have decent depth (especially down the middle with Thornton, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau), quality goaltending and an outstanding power-play that should catapult them into the conference final regardless of their opponent. Anaheim looks to be the tougher matchup given their size, strength and superb special teams, but the Predators would pose a threat too with their stable defence and newfound offensive weapons.
Pekka Rinne's ongoing struggles would give pause if Nashville were to advance though.
Both teams beat the Sharks in their regular-season series, but this San Jose squad appears to have found another level under head coach Pete DeBoer this spring, surely finding an added bounce of confidence after the disposal of Los Angeles, a long-time foe.
A Western Conference final of two former playoff disappointments awaits.
First round picks: Florida, Tampa, Washington, Pittsburgh, Dallas, St. Louis, San Jose, and Anaheim
First round record: 6-1*
*Anaheim and Nashville play Game 7 on Wednesday night
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press